1 December 2009
Arabian Blues From Finland - World Harmonica
Festival Bronze!
In November 2009, the 23-year-old Jantso Jokelin from Turku, Finland,
received third prize in the Open Category at the World Harmonica Festival in
Trossingen, Germany, and was rated “outstanding”. Performing Arabian music
on a diatonic “blues” harmonica, his use of controlled overblows, bent tonic
notes, complex arpeggios, odd time signatures and even beatboxing
reportedly resulted in cries of “Finally something new!” from the jury.

Although Jokelin played solo in the competition, he used a pre-recorded backing
track by Touko Hujanen, with whom they form the Ataturk Band – a duo that won
the Finnish National Streetplaying Championships in 2007. A CD is rumoured to
be in the works, but until it appears, one can get a taste of Jantso’s formidable
technique at gigs: with either the Ataturk Band or with Alaska Kalan, the New
Jersey-born Helsinki hip-hop blues pioneer.

A graduate of the Down Home Kivi blues jams in Tampere, Mr. Jokelin is currently
studying folklore at the University of Turku, writing his bachelor’s thesis about
trains in Afro-American music lore and planning a field trip to Mississippi. Last but
not least, the man also known as Jay Sinister and Triple Jay was the first person
to professionally translate Jim Morrison’s poetry to Finnish – a combined edition
of the two original Morrison books, “The Lords & The New Creatures” was first
published in Finland in 2006.

What inspired you to pick up the harp in the first place?

I bought my first harp when I was 18, probably. I just liked the sound, but I
didn't know much about it - I had just heard it in basic folk and blues music. At
that time, I had no idea how versatile it can be. My friends said we should use it
on the album we were recording with our high school band, so I had to learn
basic melody playing very fast and from scratch. Those sessions forced me to
learn the basics.

A year passed, and I wasn’t playing much. Then I saw Steve Guyger in Tampere,
it was one of those Down Home Kivi evenings, and it hit me like nothing before. I
just loved the sound, it gave me goosebumps! That evening, I decided I was
gonna play that damn instrument every day, so that one day I could be as good
as that guy. Of course, I knew Sonny Boy and them from records, but the live
experience was like a revelation, and I started practicing daily. It drove my
girlfriend crazy - we broke up after a year or so. I had books, videos, and records
to help me - but never a real teacher or a "master", if you will. I guess it was the
American street player Adam Gussow with his 150+ videos on YouTube that
taught me most about the blues harp. And lots of listening and copying, of
course. From the old players, Sonny Terry was probably the most important at
that time. He had a magical approach to the instrument.

So, one night at Kivi, they had an open jam session - I had some harps with me
and I finally dared to ask and play with the house band, the Wang Dang Dudes. I
remember grabbing the vintage Green Bullet mic, feeling how heavy and warm
and electrified it felt… I was really nervous. And since I didn't have any blues
band experience, it didn't go too well. But the most important thing was that I
got on that stage, gave it my best shot and got to know the people. In general,
Down Home Kivi has played a big role in my development as a blues player and a
listener. So I'm very grateful to Jukka Mäkinen and all the players - Kivi was the
first place where I could breathe, in many ways...

How did you find your way to the blues?

The blues was probably the first real music in my life. I remember listening to
John Lee Hooker when I was 10 or so. "Boom Boom Boom Boom" kinda convinced
me. He was the man, the manifestation of cool. The first music video I remember
seeing was Michael Jackson's “Black Or White” - a 12-bar structure there, by the
way. Jackson was my first hero, I was blown away by his moves when I was 4 or
5. But John Lee Hooker was among the first, too.

No matter how complex or distant or fascinating musical worlds I explore, the
blues always survives as the music of my soul. I kinda found the music again in
high school after flirting with hiphop, progressive rock, folk, metal, etc. Now I
can't get enough of it, and I'm also deeply affected by field hollers, work songs,
spirituals, folk prophets like Guthrie, Seeger, etc - the whole package! I can stay
up all night and just listen in calm serenity, or try to figure out how they do it -
how do they convince me, how do they give me the feeling that they are telling
the truth?

The guitar players I like the most right now are the three Roberts: Robert Pete
Williams, Robert Lockwood and Robert Johnson. Plus Son House, Mance
Lipscomb, Honeyboy, and many more. They have an incredible understanding of
elegance. If I should mention one contemporary folk artist that has influenced me
the most, it would probably be Greg Brown. Not too famous, but he's a great
storyteller. His music has proved to me numerous times that life is never
completely hopeless - and that's a lot from one modest man with a guitar.

As for harpists, I've seen many breathtaking ones over the last few years: Carlos
del Junco, Wade Schuman, Howard Levy… In general, my biggest influences have
been the people who take the instrument in totally new directions, though I still
love the more traditional ones, too, like Guyger and Gussow, Sonny Terry, DeFord
Bailey, Peg Leg Sam and Sonny Boy Williamson - "the king of feeling". All of the
"legitimate greats" have their own thing.

You use overblows, a technique and sound blues harmonica
players in general don’t seem to be that keen on. What do you
say?

It has happened to me dozens of times: I try to explain that it's possible to play
all the chromatic notes in three octaves with just one diatonic harp and people
won't believe it - I get weird looks, like I'm crazy or something! People don't
know about this because it's a relatively new discovery, Howard Levy discovered
overbends in the 1970’s. He was the first to utilize them, and now he's the most
advanced, he can play in any key with just one harp. That is my aim, too. It is
indeed possible to get a very decent and interesting consistant tone like that,
one just has to do the work to achieve that.
.
Although all notes are available in one harp, it doesn't mean a certain song
played in all the keys would sound exactly identical. That is because all the notes
and holes have different pressures and ways of behaving. Bent notes feel
different from natural blownotes and drawnotes, overblows and overdraws feel
different - and you can hear that difference, too. So the notes are not democratic,
some positions fit certain styles of music better that others, and I don't see that
as a weakness of the instrument but a richness! Music is not democratic, some
degrees or notes in a melody should have more emphasis and pressure than
others, that brings the melody to life. If the dominant is a bent note, it can have
more power than an unbent draw note, for example.

Anyway, in the Harmonica Contest, I played in the key of C# on a C harmonica,
which is the 8th position. It got me the bronze, so I must have convinced the
jury, at least!

Where did you first hear Arabian and Turkish music and what
gave you the idea to try that on such a very German instrument
as the harmonica?

I don't remember a particular situation or an artist, but I do remember listening
to tons of klezmer in high school. I don't know why, but that music has the power
to make me move, shout and cry. If there would be a klezmer band playing for,
say, 10 hours straight, I would probably dance myself to death - I just get
possessed. But Middle-Eastern music is very different. I enjoy the meditative
nature of it, the religious aura of the music, and the philosophy. The musician is
walking a path when he/she is playing the song, talking to God. That's a high
level of intimacy, and it moves me. I'm a very emotional person, so I guess that
kind of music resonates with my feelings somehow.

At some point I noticed that the wailing sound of the harmonica fits very well with
this kind of music. It can sound like a ney, a clarinet or zurna. You can also fiddle
with Middle-Eastern microtonality on it. In fact, both blues and Arabian music are
melismatic, meaning that notes and melodies are not static or constant - they cry.


Any particular artists who have influenced you in that style?

Well, I'm not totally alone with this approach to the harp. I heard Howard Levy
and Jason Rosenblatt play this kind of music and got even more motivated. Now
I'm studying new positions, time signatures and scales all the time. Most
importantly, I also realized that in order to play Arabian harp, listening to
Western harpists play Arabian wouldn’t get me anywhere: I had to go back to
the roots and find real music, traditional instruments and musicians familiar with
the aesthetics, and study their approach. So my biggest influences have been
the players of ney flute, oud (Arabian lute), saz (Turkish lute), clarinet, zurna, tar,
fiddle, cimbalom, accordion, etc. I especially like the ney, it has soul like no other
instrument.

But don't worry: I still love the blues, that's where everything started from and
what I still deeply feel has the power to enter my soul. I just always like to try
new things and take this small instrument to new levels.


ANDRES ROOTS


Links:
Ataturk Band, Jay Sinister, Ataturk Band on YouTube

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